Cola bans in India

Over the past weeks and months, Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola have been banned in various places in India. Firstly near educational institutions, then in whole states. Now there are calls for a ban in Rajasthan, the state that neighbours Delhi.

The has previously been debated in the Indian parliament after allegations of high pesticide content.

Trade bodies are crying 'foul', and obviously the Cola giants aren't pleased. They've said that the bans are arbitrary and that 'Government actions have to be driven by rule of law and in the overall public interest'.

Other articles point out that the campaign against the colas may be politically motivated.

So, the parliamentary committee would have been assiduous in trying to nail Coke and Pepsi on any violations. Their conclusions were that Diet Pepsi contained 0.36 amounts of pesticide per parts per billion (ppb), as tested by the Central Food Laboratory in Kolkata, that Pepsi contained 0.09 and that this was below the limit prescribed for packaged water by the Ministry of Health. Compare this with 28040 times the prescribed limit that we find in tea, 11560 times that we find in eggs, 34180 times that we find in rice, 30200 times that we find in Indian apples and 6560 times that we find in milk products and you can see for yourself that the pesticide content of Pepsi is miniscule.

The article goes on to point out that there may be more important issues at hand.

India is a country where even the rich do not have access to clean drinking water. The municipal water that is supplied to us in cities and small towns across is so dubious that few middle class Indians drink it without either zapping it with aquaguard or boiling it.

The American Council on Science and Health make a similar point

Pesticides are present in the groundwater throughout India due to overuse by farmers, and as a result, negligible levels end up in the Coke and Pepsi that is produced in India. It also ends up in everything else that the Indians drink, but that hasn't stopped the Center for Science and Environment from crying bloody murder.

...The reason for this controversy is not that Pepsi and Coke contain pesticides (which they do not at any level that affects human health) but that they are American companies dominating the Indian soft drink market. Indian nationalists are using phony health concerns as a shield to fight "Coca-Colonization," a popular term for the spread of Western corporate power into non-Western nations.

The CSE (Centre for Science and Environment) itself has a report saying that:

Q. Why the "milk has more pesticides” chant of the cola companies is dead wrong. Why must the standard for pesticide residue take into account the nutritive value of the final product?

Our reason is simple: if soft drinks contain a cocktail of pesticides above stipulated standard, they are unsafe. The companies say there are no stipulated standards. The reason is simple: they don't allow standards to be formulated. The companies say milk and vegetables have more pesticides than colas. But milk and vegetables also have nutrition. They give us something in this poison-nutrition trade-off. We get nothing with colas. Just pesticides. Harmful and deadly

Whilst it may well be the case that levels of pesticide in Indian cola is too high (I don't have first hand evidence one way or the other), this argument is fatuous. A cyanide pill might kill you and hence is bad, a cyanide pill in an apple isn't good for you!

That said, the argument that 'Milk has more pesticide' doesn't necessarily mean that 'we're okay', it could also be an argument for 'ban milk', too.

The Cola companies have responded in a more objective way, by saying that there are no detectable levels when measured against EU criteria. Update: The CSE (Centre for Science and Environment) are demanding that these tests are published.

Last week, India's highest court demanded the secret recipes from CocaCola and PepsiCo.

The Supreme Court ordered the US soft drinks maker, along with its rival PepsiCo, to supply details of the chemical composition and ingredients of their products after a study released this week claimed that they contained unacceptable levels of insecticides.

Justice S. B. Sinha and Justice Dalveer Bhandari directed the companies to file their replies within four weeks, the Press Trust of India reported. "If they don't comply, then the court has the authority to suspend sales,” Shreyas Patel, a lawyer at Fox Mandal Little, India's oldest law firm, said. "But no one is going to give away a 120-year-old secret, especially in a country like India. Someone would go and make it themselves."

Coca-Cola's original recipe, according to company policy, is kept in a bank vault in Atlanta where only two executives — banned from travelling on the same aircraft — know it.

(Source)

I've never really understood this, I mean, in the UK ingredients must be printed on the sides of products (okay, not the detailed preparation instructions, but still...!)

Bollywood gets a fair amount of work through sponsorship deals, so perhaps it's not surprising that various Bollywood types are coming out against the bans. Shahrukh Khan has said:

My intention is not to defend the brand I endorse. But I would like to ask the agency (which tested the soft drink for pesticides) whether they have analysed the how safe is the water we drink or if mother's milk also contains harmful chemicals?

(Source)

Again, this is a straw man argument. It may well be that mothers' milk has more pesticide, but there is a well known phenomenon in biology whereby the concentration of toxins can increase as one moves up the food chain. If the pesticides can't be expelled from a mother's system, and water is, then the concentration of pesticides she passes on could be higher than the concentration she takes in. He also says that 'if Pepsi was banned in India, he would go to USA to drink it'. Yeah, right.

Though the argument itself is specious, the point that they could be unfairly targetted is valid. Lots of items in India have high quantities of pesticides due to their heavy use in the country. However, that doesn't mean that complacency can be allowed.

There's a lot of smoke and mirrors with this debate, and it's not a new issue, it's been fizzing along (ahem!) for some time. It has started to make some people wonder if there is the possibility that 'if the beverage makers are just short changing the Indians or if our US soda contain the same things?'

My instinct? Feels political to me, but I'd want to see an independent study.